Photograph by Guy Mendes
From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
A native of Henry County, Kentucky, Wendell Erdman Berry, writer of poetry, fiction, and essays, was born on August 5, 1934, the eldest son of John M. and Virginia (Perry) Berry. He was educated at Millersburg Military Institute in Kentucky and at the University of Kentucky , where he received a B.A. in 1956 and an M.A. in 1957.
Berry began writing both fiction and poetry as a student at the university, and his poems appeared in Poetry: Chicago and Prairie Schooner as early as 1957-58, while he was teaching at Georgetown College in Kentucky. In 1958-59, he held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he stayed on during 1959-60 as E.H. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing. While at Stanford, he finished Nathan Coulter (1960), the first of his ongoing cycle of novels and stories chronicling the history of the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. In the summer of 1960, Berry returned to Kentucky to live and work on his family's farm, near New Castle. In 1961 he was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and spent the winter of 1961-62 in Italy, where he concentrated on poetry. His work appeared in magazines and journals as diverse as Contact and Library Journal.
He taught English and was director of freshman composition for two years (1962-64) at City College of New York University. In the fall of 1964 he returned to the University of Kentucky to teach there. The following year, acting out of concern for the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of the small farm, he moved with his family to Henry County , where he purchased and began to restore a small farm on the bank of the Kentucky River, near Port Royal.
Berry's first book of poems, The Broken Ground, appeared in 1964; it was followed by ten others, including Collected Poems in 1985, and he became one of the most widely read poets in America. His poetry won numerous awards, including the Borestone Mountain Award, Poetry magazine's Vachel Lindsay Prize and Bess Hokin Prize, and the Virginia Quarterly Review's Emily Clark Balch Prize. In fiction, his Port William cycle includes four novels and The Wild Birds, a collection of short stories published in 1986. His A Place on Earth, which brings the story of Port William to the brink of the twentieth century, is an American pastoral. The novel The Memory of Old Jack won the first-place award of the Friends of American Writers for 1975 and was praised by Library Journal as "worthy of a place among the best pieces of prose written by American writers of this century."
It is perhaps as an essayist that Berry's voice has been most influential. Between 1969, when The Long-Legged House appeared, and 1990 he published almost a dozen books of nonfiction on a formidable range of subjects -- environmental and ecological concerns, agricultural practices, racism in American life, public policy, literary and philosophical matters, the role of technology in modern society, and the like. His The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, published in 1977, was called by the Los Angeles Times "one of the most important books of the decade." The novelist Ken Kesey likened Berry to "Sergeant York charging unnatural odds across our no-man's- land of ecology." Publisher's Weekly, praising his Recollected Essays, 1965- 1980, called him "a prophetic conscience of the nation." In 1989 his work won the prestigious Lannan Foundation Award for nonfiction.
William S. Ward, writing of The Wild Birds in his A Literary History of Kentucky (1989), assessed Berry's contribution to both contemporary letters and contemporary thought: "He is still the traditionalist, a latter-day romantic celebrating the importance of the individual, the need for a sense of community in the natural and social order, and the centrality of our relationship to the land and through it to the universe. These are the matters he writes about, and perhaps no one today does it better."
Berry married Tanya Amyx, of Lexington, in 1957; they have two children, Mary Dee and Den. Berry left the University of Kentucky in 1978 to devote his energies full-time to writing, lecturing, and farming but rejoined the permanent faculty in 1987.
ED McCLANAHAN, Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:
Berry, Wendell, and University of Kentucky. Department of English. Wendell Berry. Lexington, Ky.]: U of Kentucky, 1986. Kentucky Authors Ser.
CT 85-6, Special Collections Research Center
Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America : Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1986. Print.
HD1761 .B47 1986, Young Library - 4th Floor
Berry, Wendell. Life Is a Miracle : An Essay against Modern Superstition. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000. Print.
B72 .B47 2000, Special Collections Research Center